Every year during the last few days leading up to the dropping of the giant ball in Times Square, the air filled with confetti and merry voices singing “we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne,” numerous lists appear marking the memorable events and departures of the past year. As with each New Year, the universal hope is that the next year will be better than the past. In fact, the new year will be much like the one that is ending, and if the law of entropy be true, then all things—even time itself—will continue their slow decay until Father Time has no further offspring.
As is my habit, during the day I pause to note what memorable events occurred on this day in past years, or try to guess which news events of today will be among those included in future lists like History.com’s “This Day in History.” I am particularly interested in those events that occurred during my brief sixty-six years, or are of interest to me because of their association with certain areas of history.
Today, for example, is the anniversary of Rick Nelson’s death in a plane crash near De Kalb, Texas, in 1985. Rick Nelson, better known as Ricky Nelson, was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in 1940, the youngest son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. My generation watched Ricky and his brother Dave grow up on the popular television sitcom, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
The television show lasted fifteen seasons, an unbroken record for a TV sitcom. For many Americans of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the Nelson family became the model of an ideal middle-class American family. In fact Ozzie, who controlled every creative aspect of the show and wrote many of the scripts, made sure that the show mirrored the real-life Nelson family.
A preacher friend of mine used to refer to what he called “the Ozzie and Harriet syndrome” that allegedly corrupted my generation. The Nelson family as portrayed on television every week was taken by many as a model of the perfect family. Interestingly, at least for my preacher friend, was the fact that there never was any mention, or allusion to God or any kind of religious belief. In fact, Ozzie Nelson was an atheist. The absence of any reference to the role of religious faith in the life of America’s model family was deliberate. According to my friend, that instilled in my generation a subconscious conviction that a happy family was possible without God.
Today I find episodes of Ozzie and Harriet rather cheesy, like most of the sitcoms of that era. But at the time I was an avid fan. I regularly watched the program as a teenager, not so much for the story but, rather, because at the end of each episode Ricky Nelson sang a song. He was the biggest teen idol after Elvis and Pat Boone and still holds the record for the most single recordings sold.
It is interesting how Ricky Nelson became such a sensation. While on a date at sixteen, his girlfriend “swooned” while they listened to an Elvis song on the radio. When Ricky told her that he was recording a record (He wasn’t!), she laughed at him. So he went home, secured a recording studio, and recorded his first single. “I’m Walkin’.” It was an instant success. It sold one million copies within one week, an unheard of phenomena at the time. I have often wondered what the reaction was of the girl who laughed at him.
I remember as a teenager asking a girl with whom I was totally infatuated if she would go out with me. She laughed; I was heartbroken. But with no guitar and no talent, I was forced to get on with my life, not knowing that I would later meet the true love of my life. And I did not need a guitar, although I did sing for her my rendition of Elvis’ “Teddy Bear.”
Also of note on this New Year’s Eve is news of the death on Wednesday, December 29, of Bobby Farrell, lead singer of the popular 1970s disco group, “Boney M.” The group was based in West Germany, although all four performers were from the Caribbean. They broke into the charts in 1976 with their recording of “Daddy Cool” and “Sunny.” Two years later they recorded “Rivers of Babylon,” which sold nearly two million copies in Great Britain. Today, they are probably remembered most for their recording of the popular Christmas song “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord.”
What makes Bobby Farrell’s death on Wednesday interesting is this little bit of historical trivia: In 1978, Boney M had a hit with “Rasputin.” The song was about the mad monk known by that name who played a major role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev enjoyed it so much that he invited Boney M to perform before a crowd of 2,700 in Moscow’s Red Square. They were the first Western pop music group to perform in the Soviet Union.
What is so interesting is that Bobby Farrell died on the ninety-forth anniversary of Rasputin’s assassination on December 29, 1916. Not only that, but Farrell died after performing in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He was discovered dead in his hotel room after he failed to answer a wake-up call. Farrell complained of not feeling well before and after his last performance.
Was Bobby Farrell’s connection with the famous mad monk Rasputin mere coincidence? I suspect so, but it is one of those things that make history interesting. Of course most Americans have no idea who Rasputin was, or the significant role he played in the history of the twentieth century. In fact, I doubt that most Americans have any idea that there was a revolution in Russia in 1917 or can find Russia on a world map (that is, unless they have taken a history course from me).
I must end my New Year’s epistle in order to join the festivities in New York’s Time Square via the wonder of television.
So, happy New Year, and let us see if we can make history during 2011.
For video clips of Ricky Nelson check out http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=ricky+nelson&aq=0
For video clips of Boney M check out http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=boney+m+daddy+cool&aq=1
On Rasputin and his role in the Russian Revolution see http://www.alexanderpalace.com/2006rasputin/index.html